12/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
Wearing a tasteful black power suit, her hair in a chignon worthy of Miss Marple, the not-quite-so-redhead stood behind the podium at September's Video Music Awards. "Some of you probably don't recognize me," said presenter Geri Halliwell. "I used to dress like a drag queen."
That's because until May 31, Halliwell, 26, was Ginger Spice, one-fifth of the phenomenon known as the Spice Girls, purveyors of Girl Power! and 40 million albums. The platform boots and teeny Union Jack mini went with the turf. Halliwell's departure from the girl group two weeks before the North American leg of their sold-out Spiceworld tour apparently stunned even her bandmates. More surprising still is the route the former aerobics instructor and topless model has taken since: Spice Girl to Nice Girl.
In her farewell press release, Halliwell blamed "differences between us" (rumored to be ongoing clashes with Mel B, aka Scary Spice) and declared, "I'll be back." Weeks later she was, after spending some of her estimated $25 million fortune on a veddy proper wardrobe. (Her Spice Girl gear, auctioned in London for charity, brought $246,000.) The matching good works began pronto. Having had a benign tumor removed at 18, Halliwell threw herself into raising breast-cancer awareness, speaking at a women's prison and a girls' school in September. In October she met with Secretary General Kofi Annan after signing on as a United Nations goodwill ambassador to promote population control and reproductive health care in underdeveloped countries. "I will be traveling a lot," she promised on Larry King Live.
But Halliwell, who's single, will have to stay home in suburban London long enough to make the record due next year as part of a reported $3.2 million solo contract she signed with EMI Records. While she has never been known for her voice, her first post-Spice gig was a whopper: At the London gala celebrating Prince Charles's 50th birthday, she did a takeoff on Marilyn Monroe's famous "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" performance for John F. Kennedy. Perhaps it's part of the greatest career move of all, says Smash Hits deputy editor Alex Needham. "The outrageous, platform-booted, Union Jack-dressed, trashy glamor queen has turned into the Duchess of Kent."